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CONTACT • It’s a Sensitive Issue

EQUESTRIAN JOURNEY – Article Series by Ray LaCroix

It’s when the bit and the horse’s mouth come together. Right? What is so difficult to understand about that?

The horse goes faster than I want, so I pull back on the reins, right? Well, that was easy, I can quit writing now!

If only that were so. For many simple pleasures with a horse, such as trail riding, that kind of works, but for competitive performance horses, not only will that not work, that idea creates problems.

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The first step is the most important. When you introduce something new to a horse, you go slowly and gently with whatever aid you are using. They either let you continue with your introduction, or they object and try to remove themselves from it. Continuing to let you do what you are doing is their way of telling you that they might accept this new concept.

Let’s set up a hypothetical example. You would like to teach your horse to sidepass from the ground. You have your horse in a halter, you have a moderately long whip in your hand. You brush or pet the horse with the whip to familiarize them, and when the horse relaxes, you tap his side lightly with it. Nothing happens, so you tap again. Again, nothing happens.

That he let you tap the second time lets you know he’s accepted that this is happening to him.

You continue to apply pressure to him with a slow, rhythmic, light tap, and finally he moves his body away. That movement is the beginning of compliance. He may not have learned anything, but he’s trying to figure out what you want. Let’s say it took 10 light taps to get him to move. You praise him for that, let him settle, and begin again. Again it takes 10 light taps, he finally moves his body somewhat laterally and you praise him. The next time, let’s say it takes 5 light taps, and he moves more correctly. He still is unsure, but he’s trying!

The next time it takes 3 light taps, he moves, and you know the light bulb is coming on!

You give your horse a light break by walking him for 15-30 seconds, and you try again. This time it takes 4 taps. This isn’t where you quit the last time, but it’s better than 5. You praise him and try again. This time it takes 2 taps. Real progress! And the next time, one tap and he moves. A request was made and he complied! That still doesn’t mean he has learned it, but he has a good idea of what you want.

You give him a short break and disrupt the situation by walking a bit, and after the break, you continue with the process. This time after the break, it takes 3 light taps. You try again, and it takes 1 tap.

Again, another break, and on your first try after the break, it takes one tap! Voila! Commitment, right? Nope. Good compliance though. That’s enough for this side on that day.

On the next day, you revisit this sidepass setup. On the first try, it takes 3 taps, and he moves sideways. The second attempt is successful on 1 tap. Your horse now thoroughly understands this request, but he’s not yet committed. It’s not commitment until, on the first try of the day, he moves easily. Commitment is when, upon a request, your horse DEMONSTRATES to you that he knows exactly what you want.

Now lets’ change that hypothetical example. Back in the process on the first day, let’s say you lost your patience and escalated the pressure of the taps. “This is taking too much time, I’ll speed this up”. You tap lightly, nothing happens, so you tap him with triple the force. He moves. Aha! You repeat the process, and again he ignores the first light tap, so you hit him harder again, and he jumps. Aha!

You give him a break, and the next time you proceed, you didn’t even need to tap. He saw the whip and he moved. Problem solved, right? Ask yourself, was the movement coming from compliance, or avoidance? You never even made the request and he’s already moving. That’s avoidance, and because of that, you will have to “sack him out” for relaxation by petting him with the whip, proving to him that you won’t hurt him and start again. When he will let you actually lightly press the whip on his side without avoiding you, and move with one light tap by lightly removing the whip 1 inch, and giving one light tap, he will demonstrate his commitment.

It’s simple to sack out and start again with a simple request to sidepass.

It’s not simple when you do that to his mouth, and that is why contact needs to be created in such a way that acceptance is never lost.

A horse’s gum tissue, as it meets the first molar, is exquisitely sensitive. If you hurt him, and abuse his trust, how do you “sack out a mouth”? I will address this later, but I wanted to make a point in a different way. Contact from mouth to bit, with complete trust from the horse, whose natural instincts are to move into pressure, where the outcome is a soft “nestling” sensation, that is respectful and mobile in your hand, with equal pressure in “rein feel”is a complicated process. It’s an ongoing process that develops with time.

The textbook definition of contact is the flow of energy moving from the hind leg of the horse, through his back, neck and poll, to the mouth, creating an elastic contact to the hand in such a way that the energy is not destroyed, but recycled.

What is “a flow of energy”? Movement. The horse moves his hind leg forward to walk, trot, or canter, and that is simply movement.

The flow of energy is also the “intent” of the horse to move, knowing that contact will be initiated. When the hand or bit are too severe, and the horse knows that contact will hurt, what happens to the “intent” of the horse?

Yet, through skillful contact, one can control and mold the movement, mold the flow of energy so that through the recycle phase, over time, the entire physiology of the horse can change into the dynamically balanced, brilliantly moving performance horses shown in the video’s of Toledano, and Valverde.

The above definition implies that contact is something that the horse does to the bit, not the other way around.

Is this always true?

In the correct sense of initiating contact, yes. It should be. To have a “connection” into the contact, the horse must have a little freedom, say 1/8 to 1/4 inch, to move to the bit by lengthening the neck slightly, seeking the contact. As contact is made, the horse should have the mentality to nestle into the bit without shortening the neck.

Yet, when you want to stop, or control the movement, a variation of the strength of the contact, in moments, can cause the horse, in an effort to not challenge the bridle or overly shorten his neck, to shorten his hind step, eventually walking or halting.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is what competitive horsemen and women who want to preserve the horse’s will (intent) to go forward, try to achieve!

How this is accomplished is “the process”. Every equestrian has a different way of doing things. There are “rights and wrongs”, but there is no “perfect”. Ask 1000 different horsemen how they start their horses, and you’ll get 985 different answers. It’s ok not to be perfect, as perfection doesn’t exist. It’s not ok to be too quick or forceful, as your horse will never forget that moment. His mentality will show up in different ways.

What’s good is to reach the outcome of a fully functioning horse, both physically, and mentally.

A forceful, straight back pull on a young, uneducated horse’s mouth/bars, can be a huge problem, for three reasons:

It’s confrontational, causing tension, as it goes against the natural instinct of the horse, to move into pressure.

If it’s forceful enough to cause serious pain, what’s damaged more than the bruise on the bars and tongue, is the horse’s mentality.

To Learn More About WeLOVEArabianHorses, visit us anytime at We have lots for you to enjoy, participate, learn, share and grow. We look forward to hearing from you soon and, creating more interaction in the global community.

Ray LaCroix
Author: Ray LaCroix

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